fbi says its making headway in louisiana corruption.
FBI corruption head says tide has turned
Posted: Apr 01, 2010 9:58 PM CDT Updated: Apr 01, 2010 9:58 PM CDT
NEW ORLEANS, LA (WWL) - From the time federal agents pulled $90,000 from former Congressman William Jefferson's freezer to the sentencing of state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, the list of offenders on the FBI's corruption division has grown into the second largest in the nation.
"The mayor of Mandeville, Eddie Price; Bill Hubbard, the parish president of St. John; Ben Edwards, Sewerage & Water Board; Derrick Shepherd, state senator," said Howard Schwartz, FBI assistant special agent in charge, when asked to list some of the recent cases of corruption in the area.
Schwartz said he's proud of this list of effective cases, but it often leads to the popular question: Are we the most corrupt state in the United States?
Schwartz said no. Instead, he said the FBI in the area has been one of the most effective in prosecuting corruption cases, and the bureau has a good working relationship with U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's office, and recently, the business community.
As a result, in the last five years, the FBI in New Orleans has scored 384 indictments and 317 convictions.
"The key is information," Schwartz said.
And that has been a lot easier to come by since Hurricane Katrina.
"We've had more citizens, business people come forward and be willing to cooperate in the last five years than I've seen in 23 years in the FBI," Schwartz said.
Schwartz said it's been a useful connection in a metro area that passes political office as if it were inheritance.
"Sometimes the people we look at have grown up in the political arena. They're very familiar with this. They're media savvy. They know how to spin things," Schwartz said.
"There's times that the people that we are looking at, we're investigating, may have written the laws that they are skirting, or edging, or gray areas, or something to that effect."
Schwartz said after Katrina, the tips got so hot they cancelled their Katrina corruption office and created a second public corruption team to be able to handle all the work.
And while they're successful, they are backlogged on tips and information. Many times the calls come through the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a helping hand.
"It's not uncommon, months later, getting a phone call from the federal agents, (saying) 'I'm interested in such-and-such memo from several months ago,'" said Tony Radosti of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Radosti said many times they'll get the first phone call, which he then passes onto the FBI in the form of a report.
"There is a statute of limitations in federal government, generally six years, so a delay of a year or so, or two, is not going to hurt a case," Radosti said.
Schwartz said that makes the job much easier on federal agents. "Unlike a police officer who sees a crime and has to do something immediately, we have the luxury of taking as much time as needed to do that," he said.
He said that is why 90 percent of the time the defendants plead guilty and don't go to trial, and begin to tell on others to minimize their jail time.
Schwartz believes success breeds success, and through that success he's convinced they've slowly changed how accepted corruption is.
"I think we have turned a corner already in doing that. I think we have," Schwartz said. "I think Katrina literally and figuratively leveled the playing field in New Orleans. People -- the business people, the citizens -- realized we have a chance to make change and things don't have to always be the way they always were."
Schwartz said he hopes the public will see the high number of cases as something positive, since he sees no end to the rush in sight.